Exclusive Interview with True Blood Production Designer Suzuki Ingerslev – Part 1

June 4, 2009 by  

The detailed work that goes into creating the imaginary world of Alan Ball’s hit HBO TV series True Blood is the result of the creative genius of Production Designer Suzuki Ingerslev and her team.  It is Ms. Ingerslev and her team’s astonishing talent in recreating a world that seems so real that viewers easily find themselves escaping into the rural Northern Louisiana backdrop where humans are trying to deal with the revelation that vampires exist and are trying to mainstream into society.  Her painstaking attention to detail has not gone unnoticed as she received a nomination by the Art Directors Guild for the Excellence in Production Design Award for her work on True Blood for Season 1 Episode 7  “True Blood — Burning House of Love” in the category of One hour Single-Camera Television Series.  This nomination is just one of the many she has received including an Excellence in Production Design Award nomination in the same year as True Blood in the category of Half-hour single-camera TV series for her work on HBO’s “In Treatment” on the episode “Sophie Week One.”   Her dedication and hard work has earned her 7 Emmy nominations for her various projects including HBO’s “Six Feet Under”, “Shark,” and “Tracy Takes On.” Recently Kasandra Rose and Ollie Chong from had the great pleasure of speaking with Ms. Ingerslev regarding her background and the remarkable work that her and her team do in order to bring the imaginary world of True Blood to life. To enjoy the wonderful photos from Suzuki Ingerslev please click to enlarge.

Maggie Smith: Art Dept Coordinator, Tom Kilbourne: Art Dept. PA, Cat Smith: Art Director, Bob Thompson: Construction General Foreman, Macie Vener: Asst. Art Director, Daniel Bradford: Set Deisigner, Suzuki Ingerslev: Production Designer, Mike Wells: Construction Coordinator, Tom Wilson,: Lead man for Set Decorator, Billy Budd: Paint Supervisor.

Maggie Smith: Art Dept Coordinator, Tom Kilbourne: Art Dept. PA, Cat Smith: Art Director, Bob Thompson: Construction General Foreman, Macie Vener: Asst. Art Director, Daniel Bradford: Set Deisigner, Suzuki Ingerslev: Production Designer, Mike Wells: Construction Coordinator, Tom Wilson,: Lead man for Set Decorator, Billy Budd: Paint Supervisor.  Thank you Suzuki for taking the time to do this interview with us today.  We have been looking forward to speaking with you and we have many questions to ask you about your background and your work experience. So we would like to first start off by asking about your background.

Suzuki is a very unusual name meaning Bell Tree.  Did your parents live in Japan?

S: My dad when he was younger, used to travel and play tennis and he did live in Japan.  He does like the Japanese culture, so that’s how I ended up with the name Suzuki.  He’s actually from Austria and my mom’s from Germany.  A lot of people are really surprised when I tell them that.  Of course, in college my roommate was Japanese and her name was Jill! What is your background and how did you become interested in being a production designer?

S: I actually took a round about way of doing that.  When I went to college I went in as a civics major and ended up studying architecture.   I had a boyfriend in college who’s father was the graphic artist at NBC.  He used to do all the ‘Laugh-In’ girls, he’d paint their bodies and do all that.  And he always told me that I was wasting my time doing architecture that there’s no money in that and I should become an art director.  Not knowing what an art director really was, I practiced architecture for about six years, I actually worked in Los Angeles and also in Vienna, Austria.  I came back, and I was disillusioned with the field and the lack of respect that people get.  So I said, What about that interview to perhaps become an art director and he set me up with Chip Docks over at “Day’s of Our Lives”, the soap opera.  I interviewed for it and got the job as a drafts person.  From there on, I worked my way up.  I stayed there for a couple years then started getting some other shows, and I got into the union.  I did all types of genre’s, basically sit-coms, I did soap operas, I did assistant art director work on features.  So I’ve been all over the place.

Outside Merlotte's bar

Outside Merlotte's bar How would you describe your career evolving?
S: A lot of hard work and, I know it sounds crazy but on a soap opera you basically go to boot camp and learn a lot very fast because you do one hour productions in a day.  You know, here on True Blood it takes us ten days to do an hour episode.  A soap opera you do one hour a day. So you have to have everything set up for that day, and every day it’s changing?
S: Yep!  There are crews that work around the clock.  People come in at night and set up all the sets in the evening, then you come in the next morning and start shooting again.  So that’s definitely a boot camp and you learn really fast.  Which is great!  I’m a firm believer in working your way up because I think it only makes you better when you know many aspects of the job. What years were you doing all that?
S: I started in 1992. How did you become involved with Alan Ball and True Blood?
S: I was on another show and I got a call from a friend of mine at HBO who said that there’s a great new show, and it was going to be a hit, and that they needed some help in the art department over there, and that I should go over there and take the job.  So I interviewed with the production designer and then made up my mind to leave my other job, which was winding down for me.  And that’s how I ended up on “Six Feet Under” and I stayed there for five years.  At some point in that process, the production designer left and I was moved up into the production designing position.  So that’s a bit of dumb luck in a sense too, but it’s always so random.  You always get offered a few shows and you have to make that decision on which one you want to do, which one is going to be good.
If you have to make those types of choices, what helps you decide?  Are you more interested in something that will help you expand your knowledge, doing something new or because you think it’s going to be a good show or..?
S: Definitely what influences me is, not money, it’s about what the script is about and what interesting things we can create and do.  And it’s also important that it is a pleasant show, that everybody is nice.  It makes a big difference when you’re here that many hours a day.  Recently we were on a different show and there were a lot of people that weren’t that friendly.  It wears down you after a while because we’re here a lot.  We put a lot of effort into the show.  Working with Alan Ball has always been fantastic because he really does care and he has that vision and you can sit down and talk to him about that character and where the show is going.  He cares.  You don’t hear that line that you often hear on some networks, “oh the audience doesn’t care.  Nobody cares about that.” Which leads into the next question: How much information do you get from Alan and the writers and how much is left to your imagination?
S: It is definitely a group effort.  We usually get detailed scripts from the writers describing a particular scene or place.  These descriptions are just a basis for us to start thinking about the direction to go for each character and their particular environments. Creatively, there is still room for interpretation and new ideas. We then start to do our own research,  and slowly develop some concepts. Once we feel comfortable with an idea, we will go to the writers, producers and director and present our ideas and see if we can bring all our visions to the screen.  It is very important early on to make sure that everyone is on the same page because we do not want any surprises on the day of the shoot.   You often hear stories of people saying, “Oh that’s not what I wanted!” That is the last thing you want to hear once you have put 30-40 thousand dollars into the design of a set.  So, we work very hard at trying to communicate all those ideas to everybody.  When we go to Alan Ball with a concept, he is usually very receptive to suggestions, and he is a great sounding wall for us.  He really cares about the look of the show, and he is incredibly astute, and can always add something unexpected.


Cemetary Set Up in Malibu Do you find the locations or does someone else do that?
S: We have a location manager, Alex Reid, who will go around, after we give him ideas of what we’re looking for, and search for the ideal location. He will either go online or go driving in certain areas of Los Angeles looking for options.  Then we try to narrow it down to 3 or 4 choices, if we are lucky enough to find that many!  It is very difficult finding Louisiana here in Los Angeles, so we don’t usually have the luxury of that many choices!  Once we selected our choices, we will show them to the director and producers and see what everyone thinks.  Then we will start going through the logistics of each location.  How many hours can we shoot there, where in the city is it, and can we afford it? Once we have narrowed down our choices, we will go on what is called “a location scout” and see each property in person. Everything always looks better in pictures, so we need to see for ourselves what we are up against. Unfortunately, neighborhoods are getting more and more difficult to shoot  because people are tired of the inconvenience that filming may impose on them.   They enjoy the income, but don’t want the headaches. Which is probably one of the reasons why production in leaving the state, which ultimately will be very detrimental to the entire city and state. The entertainment industry is one of the main industries left here and we can not afford to lose it.  On True Blood we usually end up shooting on the outskirts of Los Angeles because the inner city is too congested, is lacking in greenery, and has too many high rise buildings .  We’re always looking for properties that have more expanse and greenery around them.  So, we always end up in areas like Long Beach, Pasadena, or Malibu… which couldn’t be further apart if we tried.  Unfortunately this means a lot of driving for the crew, and we always hear “Can’t you just find that location by the studio?” The answer is “no”!
Does that add additional challenge to the project besides just the time to get there?
S: It does, because sometimes we’ll be shooting in 3 different locations over a couple of days, which means our crew has to go out in every which direction and start prepping. My art director and I, also try to be out there in case the crew may need additional information or direction, although that is not always possible. We have an assistant art director, Macie Vener, who spends a lot of time in her car trying to get to all these locations in Los Angeles traffic. She will go out there and take progress pictures for us when we can’t  be there, as well as give the crew direction. It really is a challenge to oversee everything that is going on throughout the area of greater Los Angeles, so having a great crew that I can trust just makes my life a lot easier.
Are you given a budget for each set that you create or as a whole for the complete series.  How does that work?
S: On network television you do usually have an episodic budget, and you have to stick very closely to that.  However, here at HBO, we usually turn in budgets once we have read the script and decided what to build.  That budget can vary according to the complexity of the script.  We usually will then talk to the producers and let them know where we are financially. They can either choose to build everything or they can talk to the writers and decide to move scenes into existing sets that we already have. Another option to deflect costs would be if a set were re-occurring over several episodes then we could divide the costs over several episodes.

Side of Sookie's house built on the set lot

Side of Sookie's house built on the set lot
So if you come up with something great are they flexible?
S: They really are.  That’s what’s been great too!  It helps because sometimes if you want to do something spectacular, and it costs more money, they are usual as excited about the ideas as we are and they will support us in taking a set to the next level. We are all big sticklers about details.  Even for the actors, the details and the reality help them feel and become their characters.  My art director, Cat Smith and I, will sit down and do research on the internet, and try to find the real locations, and we will incorporate the details we find into our sets.  Thank God for Google Images! We are very interested to hear how a particular set on True Blood was developed from the beginning to the final product.
S: Let’s take Sookie‘s House for example.  When I interviewed with Alan Ball, I came into the interview with a notebook full of ideas which I felt best depicted a Southern Grandmother’s old farmhouse.   I pitched a bunch of ideas, and he liked them. This, in turn,  got Alan inspired and he went out and bought several books on interior design.  He then put post it notes on a couple of pages and ideas that he liked to let us know the direction he was going.  I took his ideas and my ideas and created a design that best combined all the concepts.  I don’t usually use storyboards or anything like that.  We come up with our own ideas, and to present them we do some renderings, or color drawings of each set.  Whatever we can do to get everyone on the same page, the better.  When I design a plan for a particular set, I can’t just draw a pretty house, I have to think about how each wall can come apart so that we can ‘wild‘ them to get cameras into them. Wilding?
S: The term wilding walls come from the ability to have a wall on set pull out in order to give the crew more room to shoot and/or provide a shot for them which they would otherwise not be able to get because the wall is in the way. We usually try and make all our walls wildable, and we hide the fact that they have a seam by stepping them back, or adding a pilaster. We don’t want to reveal that this wall comes apart by having an unsightly seam.  Also, once you have a permanent set, the crews get really bored inside them and everyone wants a new and innovative shot.  So we try to have as many entrances as possible, and views into other rooms so that they can have different things happening.  Also depth, that’s what make our sets seem like a real location. We try to have archways that look into other room, and many different entrances into a space.  In Sookie‘s house we definitely tried implement the everywhere.  In the living room, I added a sewing room behind the back of the living room so that you are not shooting into a solid wall and it doesn’t feel flat. It is more interesting to see into another room, and also it helps establish the character of Gran.  This room definitely gives you a peak into Grandma’s life and what her interests are. When I designed the room which I like to call the “bonus” room because it wasn’t in the script,  I told my decorator,  Rusty Lipscomb, about it and she said, “What is it?” Good Question, and I said, “I don’t know!” She was very clever and came up with the concept of Grandma’s sewing room.  They put all her old patterns, embroidery,  and knitting back there and it took on the personality of Grandma.

Sookie's dining room

Sookie's dining room

One other thing that was important, we didn’t have a lot of money on the pilot so we went to a local salvage yard and were able to incorporate a lot of cabinetry and fireplace surrounds that we found there.  They were definitely unique pieces that already had an aged and timeless feeling to them.  It saved us a step buy not having to build everything from scratch and then try to age it down and make it look old.  We do have an amazing painter, Billy Budd, that can age everything down for us by using techniques that he has perfected.  Bill Compton‘s house is a good example of that. Which set on True Blood was the most challenging to create and why?
S: I think the interior of Merlotte’s was the most challenging to design.  There were so many important features to incorporate and so little time.  For instance, you had to see where Lafayette works in the kitchen and interacts with the waitresses, as well as Bathrooms, a Dining Area, Bar and Back bar, Pool Room, Service Area and Sam’s office. We designed it so that a Director of Photography can use a steadicam and follow actors throughout the entire set seamlessly, while still having depth and interest.   Also, incorporating the high ceilings into the set in such a way that the crew can still light the set and not have the ceilings block their light was also challenging. When you design for the cameras to go through, do you always leave extra space in hallways and doorways wider?

S: We do.  Behind the bar is a lot wider than it would probably be in real life, but it makes sense to get the camera back there as well as the crew.  That goes for rooms, and corridors as well. The rule of thumb is to make a set 25% bigger than it would be in the real world.

Behind the bar at Merlotte's

Behind the bar at Merlotte's So it looks and feels like a real bar?
S: Yes, people have gone into it and said, “My God this looks so real!”  I have had several people tell me that they thought we really shot this at a real location and not on stage. We also have worn down floors, vintage beer coasters laminated into the bar top, and ripped, worn down booths. Even the beer taps work, they just have non alcoholic beer in them. Do you change the set to create an new feeling or mood or does someone else add little day to day touches?
S: I have a set dressing crew that is in charge of the interior of the set.  They will usually go in before the crew films, and make sure it is clean and reset, as well as add the dressing that the director and/or actor may need for that particular episode.  Also, the prop master will take over the set once the dressing crew has finished, and he will make sure the beer taps work, the food is being cooked and any items that an actor holds in the scene are available. A food stylist will often assist the property department, when there are big kitchen scenes, and that not only gives the kitchen the extra layer of texture and busyness that we like, but it also provides the background food for sets like Merlotte’s. It should really look like people are ordering and eating there in the background. How much information do you get on the character and how does it influence the design of the set? For instance, Lafayette?
S: Huge influence!  Basically I read all the books to this series, so I learned about  the character of Lafayette from the books.  But then I also went to Alan Ball with a bunch of ideas on how eccentric I could make make him.  I also take my queues from wardrobe, and see how outrageously they are dressing him.  When I first saw him I thought “Wow, this is somebody we can have fun with and make it completely unique.”  I try to make all the sets feel different from one another.  That way, when you’re in close ups, which you generally are on TV,  you know you are at a particular location just by the feel or color of the walls. Lafayette‘s House was a lot of fun, the decorator and I worked with Alan and picked his brain.  We went to town on that character.  I mean, how often do you get to use all that leopard carpeting and 1970’s foil wallpapers?

Lafayette room before and after

Lafayette room before and after

As you can see, character is really very important to me, and if it’s not described in the script,  I will go to Alan Ball and ask about the character and what his thoughts are. He is excellent in developing characters How do decide on the color scheme for the various sets? They are all very attractive yet they are all very different.
S: When I did “Six Feet Under” there was a color palette for each family.  The Fisher’s were more in the greens, and Brenda was more the blue.  For this show, it’s the same thing, I try to keep everybody a little bit separate.  Bill‘s house has a more blue, old patina look to it.  While Sookie‘s house displays more colors, but each color has been muted with age.  While there is color in her set the overall vibe of that set is white, old and bright.   Merlotte‘s is all the wood and stone, more natural, while Lafayette‘s is flamboyant with purple walls and black and silver foil paper.  I try to purposely select colors that I haven’t chosen already so that we just feel like we’re in a different environment, it’s a quick read. How do you come up with the ideas of all the details to be placed on a particular set and where do they come from?
S: Books, a lot of books.  I have a huge library of interior design books.  And I go through magazines and the internet, and try to find inspiration in many different ways because there’s no way one person can pull all that out of their own mind.  When you see inspiring things it just ‘hits’.  Also with the decorator, they will go out and shop.  They get inspired by certain things that they may run into in prop houses or stores. The decorator will then come back after a day of shopping and we will go over the photos they took and look for interesting items they may have found.  Sometimes inspiration hits and we say “Wow, that would be so cool if we could have that in their house.”

Bill's staircase

Bill's staircase We know True Blood shoots at night a lot.  Do you work on the set at night?
S: No, that’s the luxury of being in the art department!  Most of our work has to be done in the day because all the vendors and stores are only open during the day time. We will, however,  take turns and represent the Art Department on set at the beginning of their day by doing what we call “opening” the set.  By that we mean that we will make sure the crew has everything they need from our department, and that there are no problems. Once they get their first shot off, we leave. How is each set prepared.  Is there a team of painters that goes from set to set or is there a team for each set that handles everything?
S: I have one large team and we all work together to achieve a certain look.  It start with my art department, which includes an art director, an assistant art director and a set designer. Together we will figure out how best to execute the concept.  I will pick the colors, and wallpapers and then design the general floor plan to get the momentum going.  Then the art director will oversee that it’s being designed and built the way that I have envisioned it.  My crew is free to add their own details to the sets as well-  I am always open to suggestions.  And then the drawings go to my construction co-coordinator and he bids them, gets the set organized,  and orders the materials.  And then his crew takes it over and starts building it.  Once the set has been constructed, the paint and plaster crew move in to complete the finishes. Only after they are done do the set dressers and decorator get to bring in their furniture, artwork and accessories. Once we’re done with all that, we hand it over to the lighting and grip departments and they can create their magic. Lighting makes a big difference in each set and I can’t emphasis enough how important it is.  We have two great DP’s on the show, Matt Jensen and Romeo Tyrone.  They do such an amazing job making our sets feel real.  Lighting can either make or break you.  You could design the best set in the world and if they light it badly it still looks fake!  So I’m very appreciative of them, I think they’ve given the show a really great look.

Stay tuned for Part 2 and information on Suzuki’s team.

(Photo credit: Suzuki Ingerslev and